The Gülen movement: Muslim educational activism in Turkey and abroad

2017-05-18T02:38:22Z (GMT) by Tittensor, David
The Gülen Movement is a transnational Muslim educational faith based network that has, in just three decades, established schools in more than 110 countries. Originating in Turkey, the Movement, which over the last decade has come to be informally named after its leader Fethullah Gülen, seeks to promote both formal secular education and informal religious education. While in recent years the Movement has come to scholarly attention, the vast majority of what has been written about the Movement is based largely at the level of discourse and tends to fall into two camps: Movement supporters and detractors. The latter regularly accuse Movement members of being fundamentalists and revolutionaries in waiting, whilst Movement members and sympathisers deny any hidden agendas. The aim of this thesis is to cut through the polemics and render the Movement more accessible through empirical study. The key research question driving this thesis is: How does Islam inspire and influence the educational praxis of the Gülen Movement and how should it be characterised? Field data was gathered in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey, using a critical ethnographic method. From February 2008 to March 2009 37 interviews were undertaken with Movement teachers and graduates who had taught and studied at schools in Turkey, Central Asia, Africa, and South Asia. This was supplemented by interviews with journalists and publishers from within the movement, Turkish politicians, and over 300 hours of observation in Gülen schools and institutions. I argue that, despite what its detractors might claim the Movement is in fact not driven by a fundamentalist understanding of Islam, but rather is the product of a modern understanding of traditional, Sufistic, Anatolian Islam of the kind that finds broad appeal with the supporters of the moderate, progressive, post-Islamist vision of the incumbent Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey. Organic to Turkey, this form of Islam has carried over many elements from the Ottoman period but adopts a progressive orientation such that it generally engages with modernity rather than opposing or rejecting it. Further, I contend that the Movement is, in a sense a ‘missionary’ organisation that has chosen, partly out of necessity and partly out of conviction to adopt the language and outreach style of modern Christian organisations, such as World Vision, which is sometimes referred to ‘lifestyle evangelism’, or preaching through example. The schools are the vehicle through which their particular approach to Islam is promoted. Whilst the Movement, however, behaves and acts in similar fashion to aid and development organisations like World Vision, it is also distinctive in that it is not a regular civil society organisation, but rather a hybrid entity of social entrepreneurs and social businesses that occupies the liminal space bridging the market and the third sector. Another significant point of difference is that the Movement focuses its message towards fellow Muslims rather than seeking conversions from non-Muslims. These findings not only fill some of the gaps in the literature, but also challenge the current orthodoxy. The Movement is not content to be just an educational provider; it also seeks to be a major social force or change agent wherever they go through advocating their moderate and progressive approach to Islam. Understanding the Movement is critically important, as its size and reach indicate that it will likely have a significant role to play both in shaping Islam in the Middle East and amongst Muslim diasporas in the years to come.